One of the basic freedoms that we enjoy as American citizens is our right to be free from discrimination in the exercise of our religious faith or belief.
In 1964 a landmark piece of legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was passed. A provision of the Act known as Title VII made it unlawful for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or discharge any individual, or to do anything affecting a person's compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of that person's race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The Act also made it unlawful for an employer to limit, segregate or classify employees or applicants for employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in any way which would deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his or her status as an employee.
Use of the term "religion" has been defined to include all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.
What is considered a religious belief?
If a belief concerning certain religious practices is sincerely held by an individual, courts typically will not second-guess that individual's religious beliefs, and such conduct will be protected. It is not the court's duty to determine what is or is not a religious belief but merely to determine whether the beliefs in question are sincerely held by an individual.
If an employee believes his or her religious beliefs conflict with certain employment requirements, what should the employee do?
As in any situation, it's always best to try and work matters out in an informal, non-adversarial way.
Bringing concerns to the attention of the human resources officer or personnel director can often get issues of this nature resolved.
If, after informing the employer of the religious belief in question and how it conflicts with certain job requirements, an informal resolution can't be reached between the employee and the employer, and the terms or conditions of the employee's job are affected, the employee should contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
What is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the EEOC, is a federal administrative agency that investigates and sometimes prosecutes claims of discrimination. In order for your charge of discrimination to be timely filed with the EEOC, it must be filed within 180 days of the last known discriminatory act that occurred. In some states that have similar state agencies, the EEOC and the state agency have a work share agreement that, in some instances, can extend this deadline to 300 days. To see if your state has a work share agreement with the EEOC, please contact an attorney of your choosing in your state.
What if I want to file a lawsuit in federal court? Can I do that instead of filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC?
For claims under Title VII, you must file with the EEOC first. If the EEOC has not conducted an investigation or rendered a probable cause finding to determine if there has been discrimination, a party can request a right-to-sue letter and, within 90 days of receipt of that letter, the party can file suit in United States District Court.
What type of damages are available if a party proves there has been discrimination because of an individual's religious beliefs?
Under Title VII the amount of compensatory and punitive damages available depends on the number of employees a business has on its payroll.
$50,000 for employers with 15-100 employees;
$100,000 for employers with 101-200 employees;
$200,000 for employers with 201-500 employees; and
$300,000 for employers with more than 500 employees.
In addition to the caps that have been imposed upon compensatory and punitive damages, a party may seek back pay, loss of benefits and injunctive or declaratory relief. The prevailing party at trial they may also receive their reasonable attorney's fees and costs.
What is injunctive or declaratory relief?
Injunctive or declaratory relief is an order from the court directing an employer to reinstate a worker who has been discriminated against, with all of that person's back wages and other employment benefits restored. If reinstatement is not appropriate because of hard feelings between parties, the court may make an award of compensation in lieu of reinstatement.
Are there any other types of claims that can be made in a religious discrimination situation?
Often state claims can be brought at the same time as a federal claim. The state claims may include intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful termination, retaliatory discharge and a whole raft of other claims that may or may not be particular to your state. Since all these claims have different statutes of limitation, which is the period of time during which you must bring your lawsuit or your right to go to court will forever be lost, it is best to contact an attorney in your particular state. He or she can tell you what the statutes of limitations are for any additional state claims which may be brought with a federal claim.